Who Am I?

Having explored who God is, we now turn to an exploration of human self.

Martin and Barresi (2006) provide a pen sketch of the development of concepts of selfhood. They trace the idea of the true self, as an individual that characterises who we really are, to Cicero. (p.30) In Plotinus is seen the conception that the highest aim of the soul is the escape from the material world to the selfless contemplation of God, where all traces of the individual self are forgotten. (p.38) They detect in Coleridge one of the first expressions of the concept of the self being discovered in its interaction with other selves. (p.184)
The fragmentation of the idea of a stable and knowable self, as per Descartes and Kant, is charted as the 20th century proceeds. (p.229 ff) This is seen in the insistence of Foucault that the self is not a once for all discoverable given, but an ongoing construction and transformation that must be addressed intentionally. (p.262) It continues with Derrida as a consequence of his wider project of deconstructing explanatory structures and models. By revealing their inability to model reality adequately, Derrida exposes the constructs of self as illusory and disappointing in their power to portray the reality of experience. (p.264)
The final development noted is that narrative self. This theory consists of the idea that the self is formed in the stories that we use to frame our experiences and the roles that we play in those narratives, and is exemplified by Daniel Dennett. (p.274ff)

Despite this development, they conclude by arguing that the construct of self as a unifying theory that is useful analytically and scientifically has been shredded, probably beyond reconstitution. Furthermore, they assert that this is no bad thing, as the construct was largely formulated to elevate humans above the rest of the natural world. “It is as if all of Western civilization has been on a prolonged ego trip that reality has finally forced it to abandon.” (p.305)

Webster (in Vanhoozer, 2003) concurs that deconstructive postmodernism has led to the death of the self. “What Foucault calls “the figure of man” is just that: a representation or invention; the appearance of this figure is recent, and is not the manifestation of a given substance, but simply a false name given to a discursive product.” (p.221) This reinforces the view that the postmodern sees “self” as a constructed myth of modernity. However, unlike Martin and Barresi, this perceived “death” of self in postmodern thought is not seen by Webster to be terminal. Rather it is seen as a valid critique of modern, individualistic, conceptions of self that provides theology with a challenge to propose a positive anthropology that is not susceptible to this deconstruction. He argues that degrading human selfhood is not allowable if God is to be glorified, rightly, as creator, saviour and perfector, asserting that “passion for God is necessarily passion for humanity.” (p.223)

This view is supported by McFadyen (in Gunton, 1995, p.55) who argues that praise is only proper praise if it is offered by a self that knows itself to have worth because it has been “forgiven, affirmed, upheld, given, worth something.” He further suggests that denying our own worth is a capitulation to despair, and does not glorify God.

Thiselton (1995) argues that Ricoeur’s conceptualisation of narrative identity provides this robust conception of self. He asserts that Ricoeur’s analysis provides key insights into three areas. Firstly the idea of narrative provides continuity for the mind of the self between past, present and future. Secondly it provides a framework for the encounter between persons, especially in the pastoral context. Thirdly it provides a way of integrating the notion of self with that of society by the interweaving of the narratives involved. “Ricoeur’s profound achievement is to undermine equally the autonomous self which commands the centre of the stage in high modernity and the reduced, de-centred self of postmodernity.” (p.77)

A possible way forward in the further development of a positive conception of the self is laid out by Blanton (2008, p.74ff). In order to propose a model of self that might be useful in Christian counselling, the author seeks to draw out the complimentary aspects of postmodern and Christian thought. In this context he offers an analysis of the postmodern conception of self. He also notes that, over against the modern thinking-self, postmodernism sees the self as a storied-self, constructed, along with the rest of reality, in mutual and dynamic relatedness and conversation with others.

Blanton suggests that this conception has the strength that it rejects the isolating individualism of modernity, and takes people out of the role of passive observers and subjects of an external reality, and places them in the creative process of contributing to the development of reality. He does, however, note its weaknesses. He argues, contra Ricouer, that the primary understanding of self as storied-self does not address such existential issues as the persistence of self. It also fails to adequately allow the self to experience the present moment, transfixed as it is by the narrative focus on past and future. Furthermore, he argues that postmodernism is limited because it does not, generally, allow God a voice in the story.

He goes on to argue that complimenting the postmodern world view with that of Christian contemplation can address these weaknesses by allowing God to take a part in the narrative, centering the person in the present and reassuring a person of their identity in God. (p.78ff) It seems to me, however, that this complimentary model might be strengthened further by taking the positive aspects of narrative-self and underpinning them with the relational aspects of God that we discover in the Trinity.

Relational Self
Gunton, (1998) whilst describing the implications on the doctrine of creation of the relational model of the Trinity, takes as a given that “relation is an ontological category: relation constitutes how and what we are.” (p.206) This assertion is supported by Moltmann, (1981, p.172) who argues that person and relation are mutually reciprocal concepts, that one cannot exist without the other and that both are seen in the Trinity.

This axiom is used by Gunton in his discussion of what it means for humans to be created in the image of God. He follows Barth and Bonhoeffer in asserting that the analogy between the human and divine is not that of being but of relation. He goes on to argue that the relation between humans is an irreducible consequence of being created in the image of God. Therefore he argues that humans are only fully human in relationship to other humans, and that any entirely individualistic formulation of self is lacking a critical element of understanding of what it is to human, created in God’s image. “To be in the image of God is therefore to be in necessary relation to others so made.”(p.208)
Elsewhere Gunton (1997) argues that the modern refreshment and reengagement with Trinitarian thought allows us not only to say things about God that we had stopped saying, but that it allows us to see creation in a new light. In particular he argues that the concepts at the heart of being in communion are person, relation, otherness, and freedom. He asserts that whereas an individual is defined by their separation from the other, a person is defined by relation to the other. On the basis of this position he writes “One person is not the tool or extension of another, or if he is his personhood is violated.” (p.11)

In developing his argument, Gunton identifies two streams of thought with regard to the self in modern thinking. He traces one back to Descartes. In this we see an individual that is defined by a thought life, a mind enfleshed in a particular body beyond which there is no objective reality. He identifies two problems with this. Firstly, the definition of the human being as individual and separate means that relationships with others are undermined from the start by an axiomatic doubt about the others selfhood. Secondly, the ontology of the human is reduced to a question of temporal continuity of the self – am I still the person that I was? (p.84)

In describing the second stream he presents as an examplar Macmurray, in whose work he sees a distinctive approach to the concept of person. The key element of his thought, for Gunton, is the concept that “As persons we are only what we are in relation to other persons.” (p.88) In this concept, Gunton argues, we see the individual relavitised but not sublimated, distinct but not alone. He traces this idea back to John’s gospel and its expositions on the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son, through the work of Richard of St Victor and Calvin.

He further argues that the concept of the person as being in relation stretches back to the theology of the Eastern Fathers, like a stream that has been underground for many centuries he argues that it is now breaking forth to bring refreshment to the modern world burdened with the curse of individuality. (p.96) This assertion is supported by Fiddes (2000, p.4) who suggests that the idea of a human person originally came out of the discussion around the divine persons. He notes the links between the work of Buber and Macmurray in attacking the modern concept of the individual and calling us to return to the concept of persons in relation. (p.18) He argues that as the concept of the human person flowed out of the discussions around divine persons, so the insights of relational Trinitarian thinking have implications for the way in which we provide pastoral care for human persons. (p.19ff) One strand of this insight is that as God is relational, and we are to be like God, so we should be relational also. (p.28)

It seems, then, that a fruitful way of thinking about the human self is going to be in terms of the stories that we tell about ourselves, and that we believe about ourselves. However, there must be recognition that we are not the only characters in these stories, but that they are formed in community and relationship. A distinctively Christian perspective would also insist that God is part of the community in relationship which tells the stories that shape our understanding of who we are. More than this, our Trinitarian conception of God leads us to an understanding that the relationships that form our communities have their ultimate pattern in the relations at the core of who God is.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *